At first glance, Chuck Hayes doesn't appear to be star material. He's 6'6", a few inches shorter than the ideal height for a player who likes to operate around the basket as much as he does. He's not a spectacular leaper or a long-range shooting threat, and his line in a box score tends to be solid, not sensational. Nevertheless, as he enters his senior season, Hayes is the Wildcats' leader and their most reliable player. "He's a star in my book," says Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, who coached Hayes on the U.S. Pan American Games team last year. "Any coach would give his right arm to have a Chuck Hayes. He might not fit the computer printout of a great player, but he finds ways to win games for you."
Having lost its two leading scorers from last season, Gerald Fitch and Erik Daniels, Kentucky will need Hayes, who averaged 10.7 points last year, to play like a star in a more conventional sense and help fill the scoring void. During the off-season he worked on improving his ball handling and outside shooting skills, but he's likely to continue doing most of his damage inside. "I'm a banger," he says. "I'm usually not the biggest guy underneath, but I try to make up for size with desire and hustle."
That approach warms any coach's heart, and Tubby Smith is no exception. "If I had 15 Chucks," Smith says, "I'd be the happiest man in the world." Smith has his usual busload of blue-chip recruits joining the team this season, including center Randolph Morris, who'll start right away. And Smith plans to use Hayes as a teaching tool. "If [the freshmen] can just emulate Chuck's coachability, hard work and commitment," the coach says, "they'll be fine."
Those are the qualities that helped Hayes make the Pan American team. Despite the presence of such stellar big men as UConn's Emeka Okafor and Arizona State's Ike Diogu, it was Hayes who led that squad in rebounding. "It was a great experience playing with all those stars," he says. Maybe this is the year that even those outside the coaching fraternity discover that Hayes is a great player too.
2003--04 RECORD: 27--5 (13--3, 1st in SEC East)
TOURNAMENT: Lost to UAB in 2nd round
Hayes and Sparks are quick in the half-court, but young Cats must learn to walk before they can run.
ENEMY LINES an opposing coach's view
"At least three freshmen are going to play a lot of minutes. At home they'll be great, but the key question is, How will they respond to the environment on the road? ... Rajon Rondo led Oak Hill Academy (Va.) to a national championship; Randolph Morris and Joe Crawford are very talented freshmen; the more playing time they get, the better they'll be.... Kelenna Azubuike keeps improving every year, and I'm sure we'll see more improvement this season.... One of my favorite players in the league is Chuck Hayes. Kentucky fans are crazy about him--and he's a winner."